In a nod to the macho 1970s ABC cop-drama series from which it draws its hormonal attitude, S.W.A.T. retrofits several of the movie’s key players with character names from the old TV police files. Samuel L. Jackson takes Steve Forrest’s spot as Lt. Dan ”Hondo” Harrelson, leader of the Special Weapons and Tactics team whose job it is to bust into dangerous situations where LAPD regulars fear to tread in trip-wired Southern California. Colin Farrell inherits Robert Urich’s part as Jim Street, handsome brunet maverick. Josh Charles and James Todd Smith (a.k.a. LL Cool J) become T.J. McCabe and Deacon ”Deke” Kaye. (Owners of great-TV-music CDs are now invited to break into cascades of duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-DUH from Barry DeVorzon’s catchy original theme music. Okay, now stop.)
They might well be cats from the ’70s era of big sideburns and race riots themselves, this current brigade of armor-wearing men who talk in silent hand code and carry big, mean weapons on the job. As it is, the standard-issue, feature-length, made-for-summer 2003 edition of ”S.W.A.T.” — written by David Ayer (”Training Day”) and David McKenna (”American History X”), and directed by sometime actor and savvy cop-story specialist Clark Johnson (”The Shield,” ”The Wire,” ”Homicide: Life on the Streets”) — is essentially a fancied-up TV episode. The big team assignment at hand involves guarding an international mobster (”Unfaithful” Frenchman Olivier Martinez) who has craftily stirred up citywide unrest among thugs with his played-to-the-media offer of $100 million to anyone who springs him free from prison. ”Oo do we ‘ave to pay? Oo do we ‘ave to keel?” the suave baddie asks his lawyer, demonstrating a Yankee practicality that belies Martinez’s Euro-romantic long hair, Gallic stubble, and sleepy smirk.
”S.W.A.T.” is, however, indeed a movie, and moreover a movie for our time, at the very least in a socio-Hollywood way. (The producer is that tactical-minded impresario of ”The Fast and the Furious,” Neal H. Moritz, who specializes in the joys of the cinematic low-riding obvious.) And as such, the new-millennium ”S.W.A.T.” provides entertainment quite apart from the diversion of flashy action sequences (including a chase through L.A.’s underground storm drains and the rescue of mock hostages on a commercial jetliner as part of a reassuring training test) and loving attention to the mechanics of weaponry. The way I watch this action thriller is as a field guide to perceived current audience tastes in casting, characters, and storytelling style.
Such tactics! There is, for starters, a serious sectarian premium placed on spiritual redemption and family values — subtle, to be sure, but unrelenting. The good are rewarded. The bad are punished. The partying is PG-13. Street is a scrapper not just for the hell of it (taciturn iconoclasm suits Farrell’s scruffy handsomeness, and the Irish actor seems more at ease than ever portraying rule-breaking American men), but because of a conflict (and a disagreement about honor and ethics) with his ex-partner (”Dahmer”’s Jeremy Renner). Hondo, too, carries a moral back history and faces off with a prissy departmental captain (Larry Poindexter) who roots for his nemesis to fail. A prayer for redemption bonds Hondo and Street as powerfully as a love of gadgets that go boom — Jackson and Farrell bond comfortably, too, giving off a happy collegial vibe. A desire to be a good family man keeps Smith’s Deke sweet and funny even when he’s tough. (Look for Rod Perry, the TV series’ Deacon, in a cameo as Deke’s father.)
We know ”S.W.A.T.” is a movie for today because the team now includes a tough, buff young woman (Michelle Rodriguez, still hired to snarl and throw punches three years after ”Girlfight”). There has never, in fact, actually been a female S.W.A.T. member in Los Angeles, but these focus-group times demand the role-model fantasy — better yet, a single mom who draws inspiration from a photo of her little girl but draws strength from major rounds of ammo. We also know ”S.W.A.T.” is aware of its own cuteness because the dialogue plays by the rules of meta-entertainment. ”They only roll in John Woo movies, not in life,” one S.W.A.T.ter disdainfully says of a fellow trainee who spins on the ground during a run-and-shoot exercise. ”I’d get Halle Berry as my yoga instructor,” Deke fantasizes of the pleasures he could buy with the $100 million bounty.
When the movie’s arsenal of Special Weapons and Tactics runs low, a perp is cuffed with his face squashed into ”Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and we laugh. That’s another way to tell we’re not in 1970s cop-TV world anymore: There’s a thin blue line between saving lives and cracking jokes.